For four decades, the club at the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street has been synonymous with New Orleans music.
Despite a calendar dotted with bands of every description from around the world, Big Easy beats are the heartbeat of Tipitina’s.
It’s appropriate, then, that this weekend’s celebration of 40 years of music-making at Tipitina’s features offshoots of the Neville Brothers — who presided over many sweaty nights at Tip’s — and the Meters, two cornerstones of New Orleans funk.
Friday’s “Neville Family Groove” is a multigenerational gathering of Neville Brothers vocalist/percussionist Cyril Neville; his nephews Ivan and Ian Neville of Dumpstaphunk, and Jason Neville; and Cyril’s son Omari Neville & the Fuel.
Big Chief Juan Pardo and DJ Soul Sister are also on the bill. Neville Brothers saxophonist Charles Neville was slated to participate, but has been hospitalized recently.
On Saturday, Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli presents The Funkin’ Truth, an all-star band featuring drummer Stanton Moore of Galactic, keyboardist/vocalist John “Papa” Gros, vocalist Erica Falls, trombonist “Big Sam” Williams, saxophonist Khris Royal and legendary funk bassist Bill “The Buddha” Dickens.
A bohemian alliance of local music fans founded Tipitina's in 1977 as a neighborhood bar devoted to piano wizard Professor Longhair — the club is named after one of his signature songs — and other living legends. Tip's sometimes thrived, sometimes survived over the next three, often turbulent, decades of growth, ownership changes and soul-searching.
Real estate developer Roland Von Kurnatowski, who would later refurbish the Orpheum Theater and is developing an entertainment district near the Lakefront Airport, bought Tipitina's in the late 1990s.
The post-Hurricane Katrina initiatives of the affiliated Tipitina's Foundation raised the international profile of the Tip’s brand to a level the club’s founders likely could not have imagined.
Nocentelli, too, achieved an unexpected level of worldwide notoriety. He was 14 when producer Allen Toussaint hired him to play on Lee Dorsey’s “Ride Your Pony.” From the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, Nocentelli and his fellow Meters laid down the bedrock of slinky Big Easy funk.
After filling in for Jimmy Buffett’s guitarist on a national tour, Nocentelli landed in Los Angeles, where he lived for 33 years. He finally moved back to New Orleans in late 2015.
He loosely based the Funkin’ Truth on the concept of Steely Dan, i.e., a principal member or two surrounded by a fluid roster of top-notch musicians. “With Steely Dan, you never knew who was in the group — you just knew it was some great music,” Nocentelli said recently. “Whenever you see the Funkin’ Truth, you know it might be different personnel, but the music will be the same or better.”
Another inspiration: “I got tired of promoters asking, ‘Who do you have playing with you?’ ‘Well, I have me.’ But for some reason, that wasn’t enough.”
His supporting cast for Saturday’s show is first-rate. Moore was recently named one of the top 50 drummers of all time by Rhythm Magazine. Williams’ own band, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, takes its get-the-party-started cues from its namesake. Falls is a powerhouse vocalist who often lights up the stage with Galactic. Royal is a creative, versatile saxophonist who fronts his own band, Dark Matter.
The Chicago-born Dickens has collaborated with such A-list names as Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, George Michael, Pat Metheny, Chaka Khan and Grover Washington Jr.
And Gros’ approach to the Hammond B3 organ is very much inspired by Meters founder Art Neville.
“John is a Meters freak,” Nocentelli said. “I was glad to get him, because of his admiration for the Meters.”
At Tipitina’s, they’ll likely dig into the Meters catalog, as well as showcase more recent Nocentelli compositions such as the instrumentals “Come Back Jack” and “The Hype.”
Not surprisingly, the new songs are very much in the Meters mold.
“What I do is Leo,” Nocentelli said. “And Leo just happened to be the guy that wrote stuff with the Meters. Even if it’s a new song, it’s going to sound like the Meters. Because it’s me.”
Nocentelli is endorsed by Gibson guitars. On Saturday afternoon, Gibson’s customized tour bus will be parked outside Tipitina’s. Nocentelli and other musicians will sign autographs from noon to 3 p.m.
In 2015, Nocentelli was inducted into the Tipitina’s Walk of Fame. A plate-size metal disc — he calls it his “manhole cover” — inscribed with his name is set in the sidewalk outside the club, among similar discs honoring other New Orleans greats.
“That will still be there when I’m gone. It will be there as long as Tipitina’s is there. That’s an honor.”